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Forest Service national fire suppression costs could reach $1.6 billion

Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, has stated that the nationwide forecast regarding this year’s fire season shows there is a 90% chance this year’s fire suppression costs for the US Forest Service will be between $810 million and $1.62 billion.

Vilsack opened a press conference last week with a plea to Congress about the continued need to re-vamp the funding structure for catastrophic-level wildfire disasters.

He went on to explain that under this scenario, if the USFS were “fully funded” at the 10 year average, they would need to borrow more than $200 million from vegetation management and other fire prevention activities in order to pay for fire suppression costs this year. In 10 of the past 15 years, USFS has utilized forest management funds to pay for suppression costs.

According to USFS Chief Tom Tidwell, the USFS exceeded their fire suppression budget by $240 million last year.

“In order to protect the public, the portion of the Forest Service budget dedicated to combating fire has drastically increased from what it was 20 years ago,” said Vilsack. “This has led to substantial cuts in other areas of the Forest Service budget, including efforts to keep forests healthy, reduce fire risk, and strengthen rural economies. One percent of the most severe fires make up 30% of fire suppression costs. These fires should be funded like other natural disasters, since that is what they are, rather than forcing the Forest Service to take money from other programs that can help reduce the severity and cost of future wildfires.”

He expressed disappointment that the House Interior Appropriations bill, also released last week, did not provide the change in funding structure sought. Secretary Jewell stated an ongoing commitment to the cause and unwillingness to give up, even if a standalone bill was necessary and urged supporters of the effort to keep fighting. RCRC supports a change to the funding structure, either through the budget process or a standalone measure, such as the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (WDFA).

While the fire season is predicted to be average or even milder than most in many parts of the country, the prolonged drought in the west is causing the forecast for California, and other Western states, to continue to be grim.

Secretary Vilsack announced that 10,000 fire fighters will be mobilized and 21 air tankers will be in service this year, up from 11 just a few years ago. USFS was able to acquire additional fixed wing aircraft for repurposing from the Coast Guard when they were being decommissioned for a low-cost bump in numbers to their fleet.

Both Secretaries and Chief Tidwell urged the public to prepare their homes and communities for fire season by performing appropriate defensible space work and learning about “Firewise Communities” and “Ready, Set, Go” programs offered through the agencies and through the website: www.fireadapted.org.

NOTE: Reprinted from The Barbed Wire, a publication of the Rural County Representatives of California (RCRC). The RCRC is a 34 member county service organization that champions policies on behalf of California’s rural counties. The RCRC board of directors is comprised of a member of the board of supervisors from each of its 34 member counties. RCRC staff work in partnership with the board of directors to deliver a rural perspective when legislation and regulations are being formulated in Sacramento, and Washington, D.C.

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